How to be a medieval queen: the realities of being a royal woman in the Middle Ages

Dr Elena Woodacre answers key questions about the extent to which royal women exerted their influence during the Middle Ages, the ways in which female rulers chose to portray themselves and the importance of relationships to queenship – from the threat of mistresses and mothers-in-law...

A decorative portrait of Elizabeth Woodville

How much do you think you know about what it was like to be a queen in the medieval era? In a wide-ranging discussion, Elena Woodacre, an expert on queenship at the University of Winchester, explores women as leaders throughout the Middle Ages – as rulers in their own right, as mothers, wives and daughters, strong political and military figures, and patrons of religion and culture.

Advertisement

Here, she considers the extent to which royal women exerted their influence and the importance of relationships to queenship – from the threat of mistresses and mothers-in-law to the need to continue the dynasty – and the ways in which female rulers chose to portray themselves.

Follow the links below for some of the highlights, or scroll down for the full Q&A…


Q: How much power did medieval queens actually have?

One of the big debates in this area of research is whether we should use the terms ‘power’ or ‘agency’ when referring to medieval queens – agency is being able to decide something for yourself and not have someone tell you what to do, whereas power is more about telling someone else what to do.

Agency is often used in relation to medieval queens, but there is an argument that this might underplay the power of queens, because the so-called ‘soft power’ is harder to see. That type of influence, particularly when exerted over queens’ husbands, may have taken place in private and not necessarily been noted down. Equally, sometimes it’s not recorded because – especially in the Middle Ages – monastic chroniclers perhaps didn’t want to overplay the power of women, or maybe weren’t as aware of the power of women in those more intimate settings.

Obviously it’s much easier to see regnant and regent queens exercising power and authority, by ruling in their own right, ruling on behalf of an underage child or an absentee king, or standing in for a king who is incapacitated (as in the cases of Margaret of Anjou and Isabeau of Bavaria, queen consorts of Henry VI of England and Charles VI of France respectively).

One of the things that I focus on in my academic research is power-sharing dynamics – the idea that every ruling couple, whether a king and queen consort or a regnant queen and a king consort, has to decide how they’re going to share power. Sometimes the balance is even, but other times more power will lie with one individual. But the key thing is that they both have to be happy with that split. And when they’re not happy, that’s when we see real problems.

The marriage of French king Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou
The marriage of French king Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Q: What were medieval attitudes towards regnant queens?

The early modern period often springs to mind when historians talk about the ‘gynocracy debate’. It’s a discussion that’s dominated by the likes of Scottish minister and theologian John Knox, who published a famous work in 1558 named The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, arguing that rule by females was unnatural and contrary to the teachings of the Bible.

In the Middle Ages, however, we see a different kind of intellectual debate taking place between writers about the role of women in society in general, and within that, there was praise for strong female rulers. Blanche of Castile, regent for Louis IX, for example, was praised for her ability, while Æthelflæd of Mercia was heralded for her wisdom.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t any pushback against women rulers in the medieval period, though; it was harder for women to come to the throne and harder for women to overtly exercise power in some ways. And they were often second-choice successors: only in the absence of a male heir or if there was no other option to continue the dynasty. But at the same time, resistance to female rule wasn’t a given – especially if they ruled well.

Q: Who would you say were the most powerful queens of the Middle Ages?

This is a hard one! One of my favourite medieval queens actually comes right at the end of the Middle Ages, and that’s Isabella of Castile, who was an incredibly powerful queen. She had to fight tooth and nail for her place on the throne, and once she got there, she had to whip Castile back into shape after a century of turmoil – the 15th century for Iberia was as traumatic as it was in England with its Wars of the Roses. But Isabella rose to the challenge.

Obviously, we have to credit some of her success to her ruling partnership with husband Ferdinand of Aragon, but Isabella was never steamrolled by Ferdinand. She held her position as the regnant queen of Castile, and she and Ferdinand created a kind of golden age in their two neighbouring kingdoms.

Another very powerful queen was Margaret, queen of Denmark, Norway (from 1387) and Sweden (from 1389). Margaret is particularly interesting because she was a queen and yet not quite a queen – her power was wielded through various male relatives – but there’s no doubt that she was the true power behind the throne.

Q: How important was patronage for a medieval queen, in terms of power and influence?

The act of patronage – and specifically religious patronage – was very important during the Middle Ages. It’s a really active area of queenship studies because it was a way that queens could exert a great deal of influence.

While religious patronage could spill over into cultural patronage in terms of sponsoring the decoration of palaces and churches, it also included the founding of religious institutions that could signal political alliances at the same time. Margaret of France, Isabella of France and Philippa of Hainault, for example, were all patrons of Greyfriars’ Church in London, but that patronage was also connected to their mutual Capetian ties (they were all related to the Capetian dynasty of France).

Philippa of Hainault
Philippa of Hainault is depicted making a plea to her husband King Edward III to pardon the burghers of Calais. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Being on good terms with the Church could be beneficial to medieval queens in other ways, too. For example, when John of England refused to pay Berengaria of Navarre the pension she was owed as the queen dowager and widow of Richard I, Pope Innocent III intervened on her behalf.

Isabella of Aragon, 13th-century queen consort of Denis of Portugal, is another example of a medieval queen who used patronage to her own advantage. Her religious activities and religious patronage not only gave her power and influence during her lifetime, but she was canonised as St Elizabeth of Portugal in 1625, and thus left a substantial legacy. Margaret of Scotland (c1045/6–1093) was similarly canonised and held up as a shining example of a medieval queen.

Q: Is there a particular point during the medieval period that queens held more power than in other times?

There used to be a feeling that the early Middle Ages – when you see women like Emma of Normandy and Edith of Wessex – was a high point for medieval queenship. This is because the looser structures of monarchy gave women far more space, if you like, for power and authority.

Then, as succession became more regularised and primogeniture was more widely established, it was argued that queens primarily became ‘brood mares’ and that their power and influence waned until the early modern period when women like Catherine de’ Medici (wife of Henry II of France) and England’s Tudor queens came along.

However, that’s a theory that has really been challenged, and actually, we can see a lot more continuity in terms of the power queens exercised. Yes, the nature of power changed as monarchy changed, but if you look at the 12th century – the proposed ‘low point’ for medieval queens – there are many reigning women wielding a great deal of influence: Urraca of Castile, Melisende of Jerusalem, Tamar of Georgia and other Byzantine empresses, for instance.

Q: Is there a difference in the ways queens ruled in Europe compared with those elsewhere in the medieval world?

The assumption would be that queenship changed a lot from the ancient to the modern era, and that it differed according to religion and geographical contexts. But one of the things I have found is that the expectations of queens and how they were expected to behave was mirrored across the world.

Demonstrating piety and religious patronage, for example, can be seen in Japan and elsewhere in Asia in this period. The importance of motherhood and maternity were also constants across different royal cultures.

Q: Were queens from royal backgrounds able to wield more power than so-called ‘commoner’ queens?

In the European context, it was the norm, if you like, for a queen to be a princess. But at the end of the Middle Ages we see Anne Neville and Elizabeth Woodville as queen consorts in England – women who were both non-royal.

One advantage that foreign princesses had over internal queens was the backing and standing of her dynasty – someone like Anne of Bohemia, for example, the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, would have had an immediate gravitas at her new court. If her husband, Richard II, had tried to cast her aside, he could have faced huge repercussions from Anne’s family on the continent.

But it was a different experience if you didn’t have that dynastical backing. Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV, did have royal connections through her mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, and many members of the Woodville family were given good positions at court and made advantageous marriages, so she had an internal network of support around her. Yet the fact that the Woodvilles rose so high also caused a great deal of tension. Building a network of support was crucial to a medieval queen’s success, as was effective networking at court.

Portrait of Elizabeth Woodville
Elizabeth Woodville was the queen consort of King Edward IV from 1464 until his death in 1483. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Foreign queens were expected to keep up that network with family abroad – ensuring she was useful in terms of maintaining positive relations with her home country, which was usually the whole point of the marriage in the first place. At the same time, however, many foreign queens were also considered to be spies for their homelands, and there was always suspicion as to where their loyalties lay.

A queen I’ve done a lot of work on is Joan of Navarre, who was placed in a really tough position during the Hundred Years’ War. Joan had chosen not to return to France after the death of her (second) husband, Henry IV, which meant she was living in England when her stepson, Henry V, went to war with France. After the battle of Agincourt, Joan was leading services of thanksgiving for Henry V in the knowledge that her son-in-law had been killed and one of her sons (by her first husband John IV, duke of Brittany) had been taken prisoner.

Joan was viewed with a great deal of suspicion and was even placed under house arrest for several years on a charge of witchcraft. But ultimately it was about neutralising her, and the fact that Henry V needed the money from her lands in order to fund the war.

Q: What was expected of medieval queens?

I always summarise them as the four goods and the three Ps. Essentially, queens were expected to be the ultimate ‘good woman’ – a model of virtuous behaviour. They were expected to be good wives and mothers as well as good rulers, but they were also meant to be pious peacemakers and to look pretty.

That may seem like a rather trite description, but it really does sum up what was expected of medieval queens. Beauty was obviously a huge part of a queen’s role, and they were expected to represent contemporary ideals. But queens were often described in idealistic terms and referred to as being beautiful or fair even if they weren’t necessarily all that attractive. After all, no one wants to be the one to say that their queen isn’t a looker, so it’s hard to know how beautiful the woman was in absolute terms.

William Caxton, in his 15th-century book The Game and Playe of Chesse states that a queen “ought to be a fair lady sittynge in a chayer and crowned wyth a corone on her heed and cladd wyth a cloth of gold & a mantyll aboue furrid wyth ermynes”. She should also, he writes, take care to be “chaste, wyse, of honest lyf, wel manerd”.

It’s interesting that beauty is the very first quality that Caxton names in his text. And we can see this in other sources of the medieval era, such as the Welsh Triads [manuscripts that preserved fragments of Welsh folklore, mythology and history].

Similarly, during the 13th century, Alfonso X of Castile compiled Las Siete Partidas, a code of law for the kingdom. Within it, he writes about the qualities that kings should look for in a bride, stating that the more beautiful the queen is, the more the king will love her and the more handsome their children will be.

So it’s really interesting, again, seeing how these ideals of queenship were tied together – Alfonso was basically equating the idea that a beautiful woman will make a good wife and a good mother, which takes us back full circle to those expectations of medieval queens.

Q: Who created the blueprint of what a medieval queen should be and how she should behave?

It came from many different places. One source was the so-called ‘Mirror for Princes’ genre of advice literature, which counselled on how to be a good monarch and how rulers should behave.
Within this, there was literature specifically aimed at princesses and queens. For instance, Joan I of Navarre’s confessor, Durand de Champagne, wrote a text named Speculum Dominarum (‘Mirror for Ladies’) which advised Joan on how to be a good queen to her husband, Philip IV of France.

Likewise, during the 16th century, Catherine of Austria wrote a type of manual for her daughter, Maria Manuela, when the latter was leaving to marry her cousin Phillip II of Spain. In it, Catalina instructed her daughter to model herself on her future mother-in-law, Isabella of Portugal, who was, in Catalina’s eyes, a perfect queen. So there were official, published guides, but often informal guides as well.

There were also texts that addressed the conduct of women more generally. Italian-French author Christine de Pizan’s book, The Treasure of the City of Ladies – dedicated to Margaret of Burgundy – aimed to instruct women of all classes on how they should present themselves.

It’s important to add that this preoccupation with ‘queenly’ behaviour wasn’t merely a European phenomenon. In China, biographies of ancient queens provided examples of rulers whose behaviour was to be modelled, as well as those deemed to be a bad influence.

Q: What language did foreign queens speak at the English court? Were they expected to be fluent in English?

Many medieval queens, obviously, were foreign princesses, so they had to learn the language of the new court they were moving to. And this could be a real issue for them. If they couldn’t master the language, it could stop them from fully integrating into their new home. It could also mark the queen out as being foreign or ‘other’, and that in turn could prevent her from being fully accepted by her subjects.

Foreign princesses often brought ladies-in-waiting and servants with them from their home country, which gave them an opportunity to speak their native language. But this could also cause resentment and even xenophobia at court, and calls to expel foreigners from the royal household were common. Joan of Navarre (consort of Henry IV of England), for example, had four different calls to purge her households of foreigners: in 1404, 1406, 1416 and 1426.

Some princesses learned the language of the court they would eventually rule before their marriage, and there are examples of women who were sent to their betrothed’s court as children so that they could be educated there. This allowed them to pick up the language, as well as learn court protocols and customs, which again, foreign queens needed to adjust to.

The problem with this, though, is that royal wedding plans often changed as politics changed – engagements could be broken off and princesses could be re-betrothed elsewhere. A great example of this strategy backfiring is with Margaret of Austria. Margaret was betrothed to Charles VIII at the age of three and grew up in the late medieval French court, receiving an excellent education and preparation for her future role as queen of France – she was even referred to as la petite reine (‘the little queen’).

In 1491, however, Charles broke off their engagement and married Margaret’s former stepmother, Anne, Duchess of Brittany; Margaret was sent back home and was ultimately married to John, Prince of Asturias – the only surviving son of Ferdinand and Isabella. So all that time spent learning the French language and customs went out of the window, and Margaret had to quickly learn Castilian.

Some court languages were used in multiple places. Going back to Henry IV’s queen, Joan of Navarre, she most likely learned French as a child, and we know for sure that she would have spoken French at the Breton court during her first marriage to the Duke of Brittany. So, when she came to England in 1403, Joan likely kept speaking French. At this time it was a kind of lingua franca and, even though English was starting to be used more, a lot of the documents of the time were written in Latin or French. I’m not sure if Joan ever mastered, or even needed to master, English; she lived in England for 34 years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she had spoken French the whole time.

Q: What do we know about the day-to-day lives of medieval queens?

We can gain a lot of information from economic records; household accounts are incredibly helpful in so many ways and can help us understand the everyday lives of medieval queens. One of the things that’s frustrating, at least for English queens, is that we don’t have a full set of accounts, so we can’t trace their lives year by year or day by day. But from the accounts that do survive, we get a really good idea of the types of things being bought in for the household, the kinds of supplies that were coming in, and so on.

Household accounts can also reveal some of the things that queens ate, or at least what they liked to eat. This information also comes from records of food gifts – a popular type of present in the Middle Ages. If we look at the personal accounts of Elizabeth of York, we can see that on a particular day in 1502, 20 pence was paid to a servant who had brought a present of cakes, apples and cherries to the queen at Windsor. Apples actually occur frequently as gifts, which might indicate that people liked apples, or that perhaps the queen liked apples – giving the queen something she liked was always a good way to curry favour.

There’s also an example of a servant who was paid three shillings and four pence for pomegranates and apples that were given to the queen. Another, a poor woman, brought a gift of apples from Hounslow to the queen at Richmond and was given 20 pence for that. Another day, Lady Hungerford is recorded as having sent the queen a present of apples as well. So we can see from the poorest to the richest, many people were sending apples to Elizabeth of York.

If we look at household and wardrobe accounts, we can see records of the clothing that was purchased and owned by queens. Sometimes there’s a lot of description of these clothes, and
other times there are lists of the types of cloth, furs and trimmings that had been bought.

Q: How important are jewels to medieval queens?

We know these were really important. The historian Nicola Tallis, for instance, has done a lot of fantastic research into the jewel collections of late medieval and early Tudor queens. One of the things she has looked at is how important it was for queens to wear jewels as a way to project their majesty and status. The queen’s ‘bling’ not only demonstrated her own power and wealth, but that of her husband and even that of the realm itself.

Jewels were also really important in terms of the messages they conveyed. When Joan of Navarre formally married Henry IV in 1403, one of the items she was gifted was a massive collar or necklace, which cost 500 marks – more than £300. It wasn’t just the gold and the jewels on the collar that were important, it was the collar’s design of interlinked ‘S’ symbols – a motif of great significance to the Lancastrians – which matched the king’s own collar. The effigy of Joan on her tomb in Canterbury Cathedral, where she is buried next to her husband, shows the queen wearing her ‘S’ collar.

Henry also gave Joan a crown worth a £1,313, six shillings, eight pence, which, based on the description of it in the treasury accounts, we know boasted several huge emeralds, as well as sapphires, rubies, diamonds and pearls. It was the same crown that Anne of Bohemia had worn when she married Richard II in 1382, so again, it’s a really symbolic piece.

Wearing Anne of Bohemia’s crown tied Joan into that tradition of previous reigns. Unfortunately, this crown doesn’t survive, but another fantastic example of royal jewellery does, and that’s the extraordinary crown that Henry gifted to his daughter, Blanche (by his first wife Mary de Bohun), when she wed Louis III, Elector Palatine, in 1402.

Q: How did the role of medieval queens mix with their roles as mothers?

Maternity was absolutely central to queenship, and not just in the Middle Ages. Queens were under a great deal of pressure to produce children because dynastic continuity and dynastic survival were crucial. But even saying that, women like Anne of Bohemia, who didn’t have any children, could still be really effective queens in other ways.

Queens obviously had huge responsibilities. They were running their households, their lands, engaged in the political and ceremonial aspects of royal life, and they often had to be on the move with their husbands. All of this meant that they weren’t always in the same place as their children.

Royal children were often set up in miniature royal households of their own, attended to by a team of servants – nurses, governesses, tutors, even their own laundresses. But that’s not to say that queens had no input into their children’s lives. Many queens were very involved in their children’s education, for example. Isabella of Castile and her own daughter, Catherine of Aragon, both had significant control and direction over their children’s education. And even if they weren’t with them every day, we know that many queens did have close and sometimes rather complicated relationships with their children. Obviously, the mother-child relationship could be more complicated if the queen were involved in co-rulership, perhaps as a regent.

Queen Isabella of Spain
Queen Isabella (depicted right) Isabella of Castille and her own daughter, Catherine of Aragon, had really significant control and direction of their children’s education. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Q: How much influence could a king’s mother have over a queen?

One of the most famous mother-in-laws of the medieval period is probably Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, and she has often been accused of overshadowing her daughter-in-law Elizabeth of York. But then there’s been a lot of discussion recently about how competitive or cooperative their relationship actually was. Certainly Margaret’s prominence at court meant that Elizabeth was perhaps not as prominent she could have been.

Blanche of Castile was another very dominant mother-in-law – even after she stepped back from formally being regent, she was still an incredibly powerful presence at court and very influential with Louis IX. His wife, Margaret of Provence, was totally overshadowed by her mother in law, and very unhappily so. So, yes, there are plenty of examples of powerful mothers who don’t really want to make room for the next generation.

Q: Could a mistress pose any real threat to a queen?

Dynastic marriages were usually made for political reasons rather than affairs of the heart, but we do see mistresses becoming really significant during the medieval period, particularly in France, where kings had an official royal mistress. That official role began in the Middle Ages with Agnès Sorel, who essentially took over the queen’s position at court. She had such standing in the French court that many began to resent her influence over Charles VII, particularly the Dauphin who felt that his mother, Marie of Anjou, was being undermined by the prominence of Sorel and the hold she had over the king.

Certainly in a polygamous court context, there was a huge amount of competition at court because there could be hundreds, even thousands in some cases, of women who were sexually available to the king, and all competing for his attention and wanting to be the mother of the heir.

One of the expectations of Chinese empresses was that they would create peace in the inner palace, and they were not supposed to feel jealousy towards the emperor’s other women. They were expected to be a model example to other women; acting like a jealous wife was certainly not seen as a demonstration of good behaviour. It was allowed – and expected – for a king to have mistresses, but for a queen, completely the opposite because she was the dynastic progenitor.

Q: How did choosing an heir work in polygamous courts?

There were lots of different options. Some did have a tendency to favour the oldest son, but not in the strict sense that developed in medieval Europe, where male primogeniture became the norm. There were some very loose rules – and certainly in the Ottoman empire, particularly in the late medieval period, there was a lot of fratricide. But there was more opportunity in a polygamist court for a ruler to select the person that he felt most able to do the job. And so that created more competition – if the heir was not necessarily the oldest son of the emperor and empress, then it was something of a free for all. It was Chinese emperor Yongzheng in the 18th century who eventually set up the rule of choosing a successor secretly: the successor’s name was placed in a box and opened after the emperor’s death.

Q: Were queens always blamed for the absence of an heir?

A queen’s perceived failure to produce an heir could certainly threaten their position and even be grounds for divorce. Beatrice of Naples, who had no children by her first husband, Matthias I of Hungary and Croatia, was set aside by her second husband Vladislaus II of Hungary when their union also remained childless.

But a childless royal marriage wasn’t always deemed to be the queen’s fault. A really interesting case in the 15th century is that of Maria of Castile and Alfonso V of Aragon. Alfonso’s empire stretched from Spain to the Balearics and to Sicily, and then he gained Naples as well and spent a lot of time there. He left his wife to rule in Iberia and, obviously, she didn’t have a
child.

At one point Alfonso was told in no uncertain terms that if he didn’t come back to Spain, there was no way the queen was going to get pregnant! So there was a recognition that everyone had to play their part and kings were expected to visit their wives regularly. But there tended to be more suspicion on a wife of being the cause of any reproductive problem.

Q: Are there many examples of royal couples who despised each other?

That’s an interesting question, as it demonstrates the importance of a mutually acceptable political and personal royal partnership. A really good example of a royal marriage and power share going horribly wrong is Urraca, the reigning queen of León-Castile, who married Alfonso I, king of Aragon and Navarre in 1109.

The pair absolutely hated each other. There were allegations of homosexuality, of domestic abuse, infidelity and all sorts, so it was a terrible partnership. And not only did their marriage fall apart, but they actually ended up going to war against each other. Their union was the exact opposite of Ferdinand and Isabella, whose marriage some 360 years later brought Iberia together. Urraca and Alfonso drove Castile and Aragon into all-out war with each other.

Urraca did manage to hang onto her throne in Castile, despite people within her own country trying to undermine her and put her son on the throne. The marriage was eventually annulled by the Pope on the grounds of consanguinity – as they were second cousins – and a truce called, but the fact that Urraca was able to survive that war, survive the threats to her internally and externally and retain power until her death is pretty amazing.

Q: How much power could the king consort of a regnant queen hold, and could the power dynamic cause marital issues?

The role of king consort could create real issues because it contravened medieval expectations of rulership, as well as expectations of gender and matrimony. Some men found the role really difficult because they came to the marriage with the idea that they would be ruling. Melisende of Jerusalem, the eldest daughter of Baldwin II, was married to Fulk, Count of Anjou in 1129, and even before the marriage took place he was demanding better terms than that of a mere consort of the queen.

When the couple became joint rulers of Jerusalem after Baldwin’s death in 1131, Fulk immediately started to exclude his wife and assume control of government. Eventually, Fulk
was forced to acknowledge the fact that Melisende had a right to the throne and that she should have some share in the governance of the country, and the pair were reconciled.

Read more: Crusader queens – the formidable female rulers of Jerusalem

Q: What happened to queen consorts who weren’t chosen as regent after a king’s death?

The tradition of a regency was something that was really embedded in medieval France but not so much in England. But there are two really good examples of English queens who were bypassed as regent: Isabella of Angoulême, widow of King John, and Catherine Valois, widow of Henry V.

Isabella and John’s eldest son, the future Henry III, was just nine when his father died, but Isabella was not deemed to be regent material. She returned to France less than a year after her young son had been crowned leaving him in the care of William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke and also leaving her other four children in England. Isabella married again, in 1220, and had another nine children by her new husband Hugh X of Lusignan (who was originally betrothed to Isabella and John’s eldest daughter, Joan).

Catherine de Valois, mother of Henry VI, was also passed over as regent and she, too, remarried and had a family with her new husband. Catherine – who was only in her 20s when Henry V died – caused something of a scandal by secretly marrying the Welsh courtier Owen Tudor and the pair went on to have at least four children together. The repercussions of that second marriage are fascinating as it is from that union that the Tudor dynasty of England is descended.

Advertisement

Elena Woodacre is senior lecturer of early modern European history at the University of Winchester. She specialises in queenship and royal studies, and is editor-in-chief of the Royal Studies Journal. Her forthcoming book, Queens and Queenship, will be published later this year